What is Memory Encoding, and How is it Improved?
Updated on January 31, 2024
7 min read

What is Memory Encoding, and How is it Improved?

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In efforts to protect and preserve ourselves, to find the most efficient ways of achieving things, we are constantly encoding. Thus, as you read these words, you visually encode the written symbols while semantically encoding their meaning.

Memory encoding can be distinguished by types, stages, or processes. There are three processes of memory. The first is encoding, how information is transmitted and transformed to be compatible with your memory storage structures. The second process is storage, which includes both short and long-term memory. The third is retrieval, the later recalling of information as it is required.

There are many parts of the brain involved with memory. Encoding almost entirely relies on the thalamus to merge multiple stimuli into a single experience and the hippocampus to determine whether the memory is worth retaining long-term. However, brain scans reveal that the temporal and frontal lobes are also playing along.

You can improve memory encoding, though you should first learn how the actual process works. Once you understand the procedure, you more easily adopt effective encoding techniques, such as relating new information to old, creating associations or categories, and employing a visual system.

Encoding is but one element of the complex network of memory. Explore how it fits below.

How is Memory Classified?

Memory can be sorted in various ways, depending on the qualities you’re looking at.

1. Memory as Type

There are two types of memory: explicit and implicit, the first being conscious thought, whereas the second is unconscious and effortless. For example, remembering a delightful drive through the countryside is explicit memory, whereas the procedural memory (or ‘muscle memory’) required to drive that car without overthinking is implicit.

Implicit memories are embedded more profoundly, meaning you are far less likely to forget them. This is evident by the fact that people with extreme amnesia typically retain implicit memories, like tying shoes and riding bikes, while forgetting facts and experiences.

2. Memory as Stage

The brain is an impressively efficient thing. We’d likely go insane if we tried to store everything we come by. The stages of memory are like a mental conveyor belt, where memories will ultimately be committed to long-term storage or simply forgotten.

Sensory Memory is like a snapshot of information captured by your five senses. For example, if you stare intensely at an object before closing your eyes, you can see the image an instant longer. To enter short-term memory, you have to pay attention to the stimulus (a strong scent, a strange noise, a shiny ornament).

(3-stage memory model – Reference Image for Possible Original Graphic)

Short-term memory (STM) is temporary storage, lasting a minute or so. For example, retaining the previous sentence to make better sense of the next, or remembering a phone number until you can write it down, requires short-term memory.

As first proposed by psychologist George Miller, it’s thought to have a capacity of between 5 and 9 items. While we may not be able to expand this, there are ways to improve short-term memory.

Long-term memory (LTM) is stored over a longer timeframe. Although we can hold information for years or even a lifetime, it is possible to forget long-term memories, so they can’t be considered permanent. If information evokes a strong response or is generally regarded as significant, we will attempt to move it to long-term memory through encoding and/or consolidation.

3. Memory as Process

There are three major workings involved in memory: encoding, storage, and retrieval. Encoding is the processing of information, storage is the maintaining of information, and retrieval is the accessing of information when desired/required.

We are constantly encoding, including in our sleep. For example, you may be able to remember the outfit you wore yesterday, even though you never actively tried to retain that information. It’s thought that sleep is crucial for encoding memories into long-term storage. Many studies show those who are sleep-deprived have compromised memory function.

As you may expect, we are also constantly storing information. Though we have decent control over deciding what’s worth remembering – especially if you improve short-term memory through training – we unconsciously keep memories, too.

Retrieval is the term for recollecting memories, recalling information, or generally accessing anything we’ve previously stored. For example, fully-automated behaviors, such as walking, are unconsciously retrieved, facts learned from a textbook are consciously retrieved, whereas some actions like cooking a meal require both.

What is Memory Encoding?

Hopefully, it’s now clear that encoding is the first memory process. We take in information and make sense of it through this ability. Before we can store anything in either short or long-term memory, we must first perceive the item and convert it into a form that’s compatible with our storage structures.

Once we receive sensory information, our brains label it by referring to our existing body of experiences. Then, in order to be more efficient, we organize information by the concept so that we don’t become bogged down with too many specifics.

When we process information, it is either automatic or effortful. Recalling the last time you read a novel is an example of automated processing. If you want to remember the precise details of that story, chapter by chapter, you’ll need to concentrate, known as effortful processing, actively.

What are the Types of Memory Encoding?

The way we encode varies depending on the type of information we encounter and how we consciously choose to do it. For example, we don’t interpret a melody and a painting the same way, even if they evoke the same emotions, but conscious effort can also influence how we encode.

It’s easy to see memories of past events and experiences, your episodic memory, as a complete representation. At the time, however, all of your different senses were busy transmitting their respective data to places where encoding could occur. If not, these contrasting senses could never have come together as one coherent memory.

1. Visual Encoding

The process of interpreting and storing visual information is known as visual encoding. Our retinas take in an image, momentarily capturing it as one image in the iconic memory before moving to the later memory stages. Optical information must be converted before entering long-term memory, so visual memories we conjure are representations, not genuine copies.

Most of us can recall whole images in our head, colloquially known as our mind’s eye. However, recent research into the condition now known as aphantasia suggests that 2% of us cannot voluntarily recall such mental pictures.

Sensory input reaches the cerebral cortex before transferring to the hippocampus (temporal lobe). However, the amygdala plays a crucial role in analyzing and converting the visual experience into a format that can actually be stored away.

2. Acoustic Encoding

The process of interpreting and storing acoustic information is known as acoustic encoding. Our ears take in sounds, quickly capturing them into echoic memory. Then, to commit auditory items, we relay them repeatedly (rehearsal), a procedure involving the phonological loop.

Typically, this involved sub-vocal repetition, the moving of our lips and speech organs without actually making a sound. However, speaking helps you store information all the same and acts as a powerful cue for the retrieval of memories.

When we’re listening, we understand a word as a chain of sounds. Consequently, we have to acoustically encode sounds, as they are heard, to make sense of complete phrases.

3. Semantic Encoding

The process of attributing specific meaning, or contextual significance, to some sensory information, is known as semantic encoding. For example, a phrase, image, or whole experience can be semantically encoded, but the attached meaning is processed rather than the physical, sensory input.

This kind of encoding requires deep processing, relying on elaboration rehearsal, an analysis of meaning rather than form. In addition, associating the information with existing memories allows them to be more efficiently stored and later retrieved.

Meaning is valuable to memory retrieval as it conveys the information is valuable and defines it in more extensive terms that can more conveniently be stored.

4. Elaborative Encoding

The process of relating new information to your existing store of memory is known as elaborative encoding. As two elements are combined, memories created in this fashion depend equally on the latest information as the older memory.

Becoming more knowledgeable about this type of encoding can massively improve your capabilities. Several studies have shown long-term memory can be substantially enhanced through the use of elaborative encoding.

Mnemonic techniques operate through elaborative encoding. The most famous visualization mnemonic is the Mind Palace, or method of Loci, dating back to ancient Greece. A Mind Palace is a mental space created from a familiar environment, featuring several specific places (loci) inside where information can be stored.

To memorize something, you mentally navigate through a path, forming links between the information and loci as you go. Information can then be retrieved by revisiting the environment.

5. Tactile Encoding

The process of interpreting and storing tactile information is known as tactile encoding. Neurons in the somatosensory cortex, a region of the brain responsible for registering touch, temperature, and pain, relay a sensory input, which then interacts with memory structures.

Even though we can have long-term memories of touch, though technically only representations of tactile stimuli, it seems that this kind of encoding has a reduced capacity comparative to the visual or auditory equivalents.

6. Organizational Encoding

The process of classifying information relative to associations, groupings, or sequences is known as organizational encoding. Like elaborative encoding, it involves linking new information to existing memory.

Existing memories are thought to be encoded differently in organizational encoding. Where the new stimulus and memory are both redefined in terms of each other or the more extensive categorization.

What is Memory Recoding?

When we take stored memories and attempt to transform the format in which it is stored, it’s known as the psychological term of recoding. Typically, the reasoning for doing this is to condense, merge, or otherwise streamline memory functions.

Mnemonic devices are one way in which you can recode memories. One example is chunking, the method of representing large sets of information as smaller sections, for example, storing a phone number as three distinct parts rather than one number.

There are numerous similar recording means, including acronyms, rhymes, songs, and visualization techniques, like the mind palace. By changing how one commits something to long-term memory, they may be better prepared to recall it.

As beings with immense pattern-recognition skills, these recoding techniques are hugely effective for improving memory. Moreover, by adding extra meaning to mundane information, it becomes more valuable, thus memorable.

Can You Improve Your Encoding?

Encoding is the initial step in creating memories, the meeting point between raw data – what we see, hear, touch – and our memory systems. Memories are limited to our faculties to perceive the environment around us, though there are ways of controlling the encoding process.

Encoding strategies, such as building mental pictures to make auditory information more memorable or verbally repeating written statements to push it into long-term memory, can be used to manipulate the encoding process. The strategies available through memoryOS help you retain information for more extended periods and retrieve it more reliably.


What is the process of memory?
Depending on how you’re looking at it, memory can be thought of as types, stages, or processes. There are three processes of memory. The first is encoding, how information is transmitted and transformed to be compatible with your memory storage structures. The second process is storage, which includes both short and long-term memory. The third is retrieval, the later recalling of information as it is desired/required.

What is memory encoding? Memory encoding is the first memory process before storage and retrieval. Before we can store anything in either short or long-term memory, we must convert our perception into a form that’s compatible with these storage structures. Thus, encoding is essentially the labeling and organizing of sensory information regarding our entire collection of memories.

What is memory recording? Memory recording transforms memory formats, condensing, merging, or otherwise streamlining, to improve memory function. Mnemonic devices are one way in which we commonly recode our memories. For example, storing a phone number as three distinct parts rather than one number (‘chunking’) is one example of memory recoding.

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